Liverpool’s visit on Sunday is still, as Sir Alex Ferguson puts it, THE football match of the season. None more so for the fans, with rivalry undiminished by years of Scouse failure. If other clubs are more direct competitors for the season’s major trophies then there’s no match United fans look forward to more than Liverpool.
Indeed, 2009/10 proved a tough season for Liverpool on and off the pitch, with Rafael Benitez sacked as manager in May, a new chairman forced upon the club by the Royal Bank of Scotland and the American owners finally putting the club on the market.
The Anfield club’s seventh place was the worst during the Premier League era, precipitating Roy Hodgson’s coronation in the managerial hotseat. It’s a change that Liverpool’s supporters are broadly in support of.
“I just think Rafa became fed up with it. We had had a dreadful season, he was losing the dressing room and he knew he wasn’t going to get a lot of cash to spend in the transfer window so the Inter job came up and he took it,” says Gerry Ormonde, a writer for Liverpool fansite This is Anfield.
“Whether Hodgson will be the right replacement remains to be seen but given the current situation at the club, I think he was the best of the candidates available to us.
“He’s certainly got plenty of experience and should be well able to steady the ship but whether he can bring success is another matter.”
Still, with Hodgson appointed the Anfield side has achieved a measure of stability, with star players Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres pledging at least one more season on Merseyside.
Additionally Chelsea’s Joe Cole arrived on a free transfer to offer additional creativity from midfield. It’s needed. After all, Benitez’ side was nothing if not safety-first.
Not that Liverpool’s fans have given up hope of success this season, although the relative quiet summer in the transfer market suggests only incremental improvement is likely this side of the January window.
“I’m hoping for us to finish in the top four and if we could pick up a trophy along the way it would terrific,” adds Ormonde.
“My fears would be that we finish outside the top four and then we lose the likes of Torres and Gerrard.
“Overall I’m happy and I think we’ve come out of the window stronger. What we’ve basically done is replace Mascherano and Aquilani with Poulsen and Meireles, replace Insua with Konchesky, Benny Onion with Jovanovic and Riera with Joe Cole.”
Of course, little progression can come at Anfield with hated American owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett still at the helm. The Americans ‘did a Glazer’ despite promises to the contrary and loaded the Anfield club with unsustainable debt. Indeed, Liverpool’s interest payments were greater than its profits last year.
While RBS forced the Americans to accept Chelsea-supporting Martin Broughton as the club’s new chairman, the board is now scouring the planet for a new buyer. The problem, as ever, is the American owners who have placed a seemingly unrealistic price on the club.
“I think things have to come to a head on the ownership front,” says Ormonde.
“Our next repayment deadline is the 6th of October and RBS have made it clear that they won’t be offering any more extensions to the American parasites.
“One way or another it is going to happen soon. I get the feeling RBS have a couple of bidders lined up but as long as we are rid of these American clowns, I’ll be happy no matter what happens.”
Today, reports suggested Tom Hicks, owner of the Texas Rangers Major League Baseball team, may try to stay on at Anfield by refinancing the debt. Hicks had previously agreed to sell the Rangers to a group led by Chuck Greenberg and former player Nolan Ryan, although the deal has not been completed.
Should Hicks succeed then the Anfield club will remain over-burdened by debt and in rapid decline. If not, then pending a new buyer, RBS will own the club come 6 October. It’s a prescient reminder of the perils of leveraged buyouts.
“I hope we’ll be contenders next season but I guess it will depend on how we come out of this whole ownership battle. If they somehow find a way to hang on to power then we are dead, if a new owner comes in we’ve got a chance,” adds Ormonde, with some degree of realistic resignation.
On Sunday all thoughts of owners are set aside, with the supporters mutual hatred evident in the Old Trafford stands. Nothing changes, says Ormonde, despite the controversy off-the-field at both clubs and Liverpool’s relative decline in the 20 years since the Anfield club was last Champions of England.
“The mutual hatred was alive and well when we were winning everything and your guys were winning practically nothing so I don’t see why it should be any different now,” says Ormonde
“One thing that does diminish it a bit is that we both now realise we’ve got bigger enemies off the pitch, but if it makes you feel better I still hate you!”
The feeling, United fans will no doubt claim, is mutual. As for the result Ormonde predicts a narrow 1-0 victory for the visitors “with the ball going in off the referees arse in the 94th minute!”
World Cup final referee Howard Webb, who will officiate on Sunday, might hope otherwise.